Edward Alden, a senior fellow at Council on Foreign Relations, believes the U.S. travel bans could remain in effect until after November 2022 midterms.

 Edward Alden, Foreign Policy »

In comparison, U.S. travel and border policies have barely budged since the start of the pandemic. Some rules have tightened under U.S. President Joe Biden, even as many of the countries whose citizens remain banned have significantly outpaced the United States in controlling the pandemic. In February and March 2020, the Trump administration barred travel from China, Iran, the Schengen countries of the EU, Britain, and Ireland—all places that had significant early outbreaks. Trump later added Brazil to the list of prohibited countries, and this year Biden added South Africa and India following outbreaks of new variants in those countries. For the land borders, the United States agreed with Canada and Mexico in March 2020 to block all but “essential” travelers. Given a long history of close U.S.-Canadian cooperation, Ottawa was caught off-guard last month when it lifted the land border restrictions for vaccinated Americans only to have Washington extend its shutdown and refuse to reciprocate for Canadians.

The lack of U.S. progress cannot be laid at the feet of Trump, who was certainly eager to use the pandemic as an excuse for closing the borders, especially with Mexico and the EU. But in his final days, Trump had decided to lift the travel restrictions on Europeans and Brazilians, only to have Biden extend the bans during his first week in office.

For a U.S. citizen traveling to and returning from Canada by car these days, the experience is disorienting. I have made the trip twice now since the restrictions eased this summer. Driving north requires jumping through a series of hurdles to demonstrate COVID-19-free status to the Canadian border officials. But reentering the United States, I was not asked a single question about my health either time by the U.S. customs and border officers on duty. Their only question was whether I had goods to declare. They waved me through when I answered no.

So as the world experiments and converges on a consensus for allowing safe travel, the United States marches on to its own drumbeat. Stewing in its toxic political culture, it remains obsessed with its internal political battles over COVID-19 and everything else, and oblivious as other countries try to find the best path between openness and public safety. The U.S. government continues to default to the easiest political option—a thoughtless policy of closed borders that does a little more human and economic damage every day it remains in place.